7 Best State Parks in California

By Kyle & Olivia Brady | Founders of Drivin' & Vibin' | We use affiliate links and may receive a small commission on purchases.

7 Best State Parks in California

Did you know California is home to 280 state parks? It’s true!

And what’s more, there’s a park for every interest.

With mountains, deserts, beaches, and forests, plus an array of park museums and campgrounds, you’re sure to find activities the whole family will enjoy. 

But with that many parks, how do you choose which ones to visit?

We’ve put together a list of the 7 best state parks in California to take the guesswork out of your next trip! 

About California State Parks 

Regardless of which parks you choose to visit, you will need a state park pass. The price of Day Passes varies by park.

But, if you plan to stay a few days or visit multiple parks, you can get an Annual Pass for $195 from the California State Parks Store.

Additionally, camping reservations for all state parks in California can be made up to six months in advance here.

Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park

Location: Crescent City, CA near Highway 199

This state park, named after explorer Jedediah Smith, is known for its 10,000 acres of old-growth redwood trees.

It’s also home to the longest major free-flowing river in California, the Smith River. Here you can enjoy a hike through the dense redwood forest, with 20 miles of trails to choose from, or fish for salmon or rainbow trout in the Smith River.

You can also take a drive down the scenic Howland Hill Road, which is a breathtaking scenic drive.

Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park is a great choice for camping, with 87 family campsites. Each campsite has a table and a fire ring to make your camping more enjoyable.

RVs under 36 feet are welcome, but only at some of the sites and there are no RV hookups. Four ADA accessible cabins are also available for rent at the campground.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

Location: Big Sur, CA near the Pacific Coast

This state park is named after a respected pioneer of the early 20th century. Like other state parks in California, you can see some of California’s famous redwoods at the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

However, this park is better known for its Pacific Coast views. Another reason people come here is to see McWay Falls, an 80-foot waterfall that drops directly into the Pacific Ocean. Whether you’re looking to hike, camp, or scuba dive, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park has something for you!

Two environmental campsites are available at this park. However, it’s important to note that these campsites are hike-in only and cannot be accessed by vehicles.

Due to the magnificent coastal views, these campsites fill up quickly, so it’s best to make a reservation in advance. 

McWay Falls

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Location: Borrego Springs, CA in the Colorado Desert

At just under 586,000 acres, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the largest state park in California.

As you might have guessed from the name, this park is mostly desert, so you can expect a rocky, arid landscape with typical desert flora and fauna, like cacti and jackrabbits. It features hiking, biking, and horseback riding trails for the desert enthusiast, just make sure you bring plenty of water with you! 

This state park has a variety of different camping options, from hike-in environmental campsites to family and group campsites.

RVers will also be pleased to know that Anza-Borrego Desert State Park has RV sites with hookups and a dump station. 

Morro Bay State Park

Location: Morro Bay, CA on the Morro Bay Lagoon

Boating, fishing, and picnicking are just a few of the must-do activities at this bayside state park.

Museum-lovers will certainly have a good time visiting the Museum of Natural History, which features exhibits about Native American life, geology, and oceanography. Bird watchers will be intrigued by the bay’s northeast edge. 

Both tent and RV camping is available at the Morro Bay State Park with a two-vehicle maximum per campsite.

This is especially important to keep in mind because RVs or trailers count as one vehicle, and overflow parking is not allowed. The good news is the RV sites do offer hookups!

Mendocino Headlands State Park

Location: Mendocino, CA on the Pacific Coast

One of the most stunning features of the Mendocino Headlands State Park is its 347 acres of undeveloped seaside bluffs. Visiting this park is a true vacation.

Park-goers looking for relaxation can enjoy gentle hikes along the bluffs or lazy strolls down the secluded beaches. More adventurous souls can take part in kayaking the Big River out to the ocean to explore the seaside caves.

Last but certainly not least, is the Historic Ford House museum and visitors center where visitors can learn more about the Mendocino area’s history. 

Mendocino Headlands State Park does not have camping on-site. However, camping is available at the nearby Russian Gulch and Van Damme State Parks in Mendocino County.

Bodie State Historic Park

Location: Bridgeport, CA on Highway 270

In the 1870s, Bodie, CA was a booming gold mining town with a population of nearly 10,000 people. By the 1940s, it had devolved into a ghost town. Today, Bodie is a State Historic Park where visitors flock to see what remains of the town.

If you visit, you can tour the town’s buildings, which have been preserved in “arrested decay,” and learn more about Bodie’s history at the park’s museum. 

Camping is not allowed at Bodie State Historic Park. If you’re looking to camp in this area, Inyo and Toiyabe National Forests have campsites nearby.

Emerald Bay State Park

Location: South Lake Tahoe, CA on Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay

Emerald Bay State Park is home to landmarks like Eagle Falls and Lake Tahoe’s only island, Fannette Island. One of the most unique aspects of this park is the “underwater trail,” where scuba divers and snorkelers can follow a trail of sunken barges and small watercraft in the bay. Another awesome feature of this state park is Vikingsholm, a 38-room mansion with Scandinavian architecture. As with most waterfront state parks in California, Emerald Bay also has hiking trails as well as areas for swimming and kayaking. 

There are two campgrounds in the park. One is boat-in only and the other is a standard campground. Campsites at Emerald Bay State Park include a table, food locker, and stove. There are also restrooms and hot showers available for campers to use. RVs up to 21 feet are allowed, however, there are no hookups. 

California’s vast and varied landscape lends to the uniqueness of its state parks. There’s no shortage of hidden gems and must-see landmarks across the state. So, the next time you’re looking for a new place to explore, go out and see all California’s state parks have to offer. 

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